For five years, before I went broke and half-insane, I was a small press publisher. I started out doing zines and then moved on to trade paperbacks. In true DIY spirit, I handled every aspect of the operation myself: the editing, the designing, the printing, the distribution and the marketing… It was all about becoming the media and my steadfast determination to take a crackpot idea as far as I possibly could, despite the lack of money or the fact that I had no business running a publishing company.
For most of my career as a publisher, I did odd jobs to survive. For a while, I was homeless and distributed zines out of the trunk of my car. I scammed print jobs from copy shacks. I stole paper and rarely paid for office supplies. To promote my titles, I became an internet flamer and through my reckless harassment, drove one fellow publisher into the loony bin. I finagled. I lied. I browbeat. I was arrested while soliciting ads. I turned my friends against me. I pissed off writers for not publishing their work. I pissed off the writers I published for not presenting their work in a way they preferred. I was threatened with multiple lawsuits, investigated by the State Attorney General and taken to small claims court by a former partner.
And that’s just what I can remember. Most of the time I was in a thick haze of self-importance, fueled by cheap drugs and the effects of untold hours in a small, poorly ventilated room in a burned out garage staring at a computer monitor until my eyes bled.
From the beginning I cultivated notoriety over prestige. I entered the world of publishing guns a-blazing. I embraced infamy, ready to do anything to crawl out of the muck of obscurity. I never intended to create an innocuous rag that might impress somebody’s literary-inclined relatives. I wanted to make something that would get me in trouble.
All the while, I held onto the delusion that what I was doing was noble: I was promoting literature. Real literature. Not the crap that was getting published in the New Yorker or the elitist academic lit journals. The way I looked at it, real literature came out of the trenches of the workaday existence. Real literature was created by true outsiders, not just those who could afford MFA degrees. It came from those born to misfortune and raised in families torn asunder. It rose up from the lost, the mentally imbalanced, the rude motherfuckers everybody loved to hate, the victims, the sluts, the whores, the wallflowers, the creeps, the losers, the purveyors of vice, the drunks, the druggies, the acid casualties, the thieves, the conmen, the liars who make it up as they go along and the liars who have their reasons for lying. Real literature was messy. And if you wanted the grit, you took the grime.
Once I embraced the role of a publisher, it became my life. Publishing was all I thought about, all I talked about, and all I wanted to hear about. In my zeal to publish more and more titles, I assumed more responsibilities than I was capable of accomplishing. I took on projects that were impractical. I turned away those that would generate profit. I was a horrible businessman. Not that it mattered. The small increments of money that showed up in the post office box were never enough to keep me flush, much less print more titles. What I earned as a painter, a handyman, a line cook, a bookseller or any one of my jack trades barely kept me alive. Eventually, I became unemployable. I had my sights set for loftier goals than maximizing the minimum wage. I just kept pushing forward, against the will of the universe, filling a catalogue with titles and announcing future publications, cajoling and lying and making empty promises, always hoping for the best.
Phony Lid lasted five years, all by the skin of my teeth. But in the end, I admitted defeat. Not because I never made any money, achieved any real acclaim or got the recognition I felt like I deserved—sure, there were some accolades, but who cares about that? No, I failed because other people’s writing overshadowed the one story I needed to tell.
And that was the story of Phony Lid.